There’s no love lost between diehard fans of the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid and true believers in the all-electric Nissan LEAF. That’s the feeling you got from fan websites for the respective electric vehicles in the months leading up to the introduction of the Volt and LEAF. In fact, in the summer, it led some EV advocates, like Mini E driver Tom Moloughney to call truce. “These cars are different enough that they can both succeed without cannibalizing the other’s sales,” Tom wrote on PluginCars.com. “A healthy debate is always a good thing, just remember, we’re all on the same side in this fight.” The Toyota Prius was brought into the fray when G.M.’s chief executive Dan Akerson said that he “wouldn’t be caught dead in a Prius.”
The three vehicles can now be dissected for their advantages and pitfalls. Some are arguing that the economic and environmental merits of the Toyota Prius are of equal or greater value than the Volt and LEAF.
A few days ago, the venerable Consumer Reports had its staffers use the Chevy Volt on daily commutes. In the admittedly anecdotal evaluation for its blog—a more complete analysis is in the works—the Volt averaged about 33 miles of all-electric driving on a full charge. During those first set of miles, the Volt’s fuel economy worked out to an impressive 89 mpg-equivalent (MPGe). “But before we jump with joy, remember, this applies only to the initial 33 miles of electric-only range,” wrote CR blogger Gabe Shenhar. After the battery was depleted, CR averaged only 30 mpg in overall mixed driving.
Maybe this will not prove to be typical, but considering the Prius’s consistent MPG in the high-40s, Consumer Reports offered this interim conclusion: “The Volt works, but depending on how it is used and where, it may not save you money, especially in the Northeast or California. In those regions especially, the Prius remains a proven, more cost-effective choice for green motoring.” That’s coming Consumer Reports, not a Prius fanzine.
Okay, so on a cost-basis—especially considering that the Volt’s base purchase price is roughly twice that of the base-level Prius—the regular old hybrid is at the very least something that green car advocates should consider. But what about a strictly environmental evaluation? Once again, the Prius might come out ahead.
John DeCicco, senior lecturer at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, and a pioneer in developing consumer-oriented automotive eco-ratings, recently crunched the numbers for his new rating system. He writes on his blog, “In an apples-to-apples comparison that tallies pollution from the tailpipe to refineries and power plants and beyond, the eco-advantage of highly efficient hybrid drive, as epitomized by the Prius, still shines.” DeCicco calls the Chevy Volt a “high roller” in all-electric mode, nearly approaching the LEAF’s 99 MPG equivalent—but downgrades the Volt when it comes to its heavier weight (meaning more pollution from manufacturing), ULEV certification (rather than PZEV), and the high mix of coal for electricity in some parts of the country.
Any one of these points can and should be argued from the other side, but the Prius’s consistent high mileage and squeaky-clean PZEV emissions status makes the Prius a compelling green vehicle. “Add it all up and the Toyota Prius pollutes 5% less than the Nissan Leaf and 21% less than the Chevy Volt,” DeCicco concludes.
All the Above
In the end, every car shopper can do his or her own research and conclude how important it is to get off oil for moral, political and macro-economic reasons—regardless what the experts say. And that’s exactly what engaged car shoppers are doing. As Abasile, one of our users on PluginCars.com, writes:
“Any EV’s environmental benefits are only as good as the gasoline-powered driving it is able to offset. For those who often require more range than current EVs provide, a hybrid can be a better choice. For that reason, we are now leaning toward buying a Prius rather than a LEAF at this time, in hopes of being able to purchase a longer range EV next time we are in the market for a car. Of course, some families might be able to really optimize their driving in the near-term by owning both a Prius and a LEAF.”